For me to write that I think Brian Mulroney is an asshole,” says Joey Slinger, “is every bit as inconsequential as if my mother phones up and tells me she thinks Brian Mulroney is an asshole. My opinion is perhaps interesting to her and hers is to me, but it has no place in journalism.”
Slinger has been a columnist for The Toronto Star since 1979. He’s won a National Newspaper Award (1982), and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for humor for his book No Axe Too Small to Grind (1986). His work makes some people laugh out loud and others shake their heads in bewilderment.
What makes him the most peculiar columnist, and perhaps the best writer, in Canadian newspapers is that he so often hides his opinion behind a mask of nonsense. His only apparent ideology is to attack the stupid, the cruel and the self-important, but not every day and not always in the same way. He is, as one magazine editor described him, a “closet moralist.”
One often has to dig deep and reread his pieces to discover their meaning. Bag ladies don’t play baseball and grown men don’t build wives out of Lego, and Aurora, Ontario, does not have a famous Nude Festival, except in Slinger’s world. If you can’t see his point, well, that’s your problem.
“I tend to be of the Mark Twain point of view,” Slinger says. “I’ve no great interest in humor for its own sake. Humor as plain entertainment is fine for those who like it, but
think a columnist should have some thing to say. The kind of humor like is going after something.”
He writes about what makes him mad and is not above embarrassing his targets into submission, if the’ are mighty enough to take the heal One never knows from day to day
what devilry will pop up in Slinger’s column. Or how much sense Something we didn’t see or know before, revealed or simply viewer from off centre.
He makes it seem so easy it’s difficult to imagine him in any other job. Actually, he’s worked at three dailies in Toronto and the CBC. In the early seventies, he was alternately Globe and Mail bureau chief in Washington, Vancouver and a the Ontario Legislature. He was later a producer for CBC Radio, gossip columnist for the Toronto Sun and the editor of City magazine, a glossy Sunday supplement in the Star.
Author Martin O’Malley was writing for The Globe Magazine when Slinger arrived from Victoria in 1970 “(Joey] was very hippie-looking-hair down to his shoulders, granny glasses-small, witty, Woody Allenish. Pretty much the way he’s been ever since, except his hair is shorter.”
While at the Globe, Slinger orchestrated a plan to streak the newsroom. “It needed to be shaken up,” he says. The Globe welcomed good writers, but it also attracted a collection of “Marxist-Leninists and Trots, draft dodgers and twitchy people” whose pretensions he found unbearable. Perhaps they thought him equally strange, especially when he and his confederates posted notices throughout the building advertising the streak. It brought the paper to a halt. At the appointed hour, hundreds of people were straining to catch a look. Whatever they were expecting, they were disappointed. Slinger made the run all right, but a raincoat and rubber boots ran with him. The stunt was dubbed the “Yellow Streak” because Slinger apparently turned chicken. Not so, he says. “I don’t think I ever actually intended to do it” The point of the exercise must have been to see how many people he could attract. It’s an old carny trick. Promise the suckers something outrageous to get them into the tent and, having done so, shame them for the impulse that took them there. What did you think you were going to see?
“Don’t take off your shoes. The dog doesn’t, I don’t see why we should,” says the columnist as he shuts out the damp of a dull, drizzly morning. I stamp my feet on the mat as McGee, an amiable six-year-old golden retriever, sniffs my hand without slobbering and distractedly wanders out of sight.
Slinger used to jog. Now, he is a speed walker. His wife, freelance writer Nora McCabe, calls it “geeking,” which Slinger admits is an unfortunately apt term. It is his morning ritual, a discipline. It helps him keep his feet on the ground.
Michael Enright, the hose of As It Happens on CBC Radio, knows Slinger better than most people. They met at the Globe and then worked together at Ibis Country in the Morning in 1974. The two look very much alike and have often been mistaken for brothers. Enright is Slinger’s best friend and has been with him through “fits” of jogging, bicycling, hiking, weightlifting and t’ai chi, among other diversions.
“I think he feels that if he doesn’t discipline himself or run his life in a fairly orderly way, he’ll lose the ability to have a disorderly mind,” Enright says, “which is what you have to have. Balzac said, ‘You keep your life in perfect order so your mind can be chaos,’ and that’s what you write from. It gives him greater freedom in the work. I’ve known painters like that.”
Slinger guides me past the stairway to the second floor and through his long, narrow kitchen to a round pine table where he offers coffee. It is a room with a view.
The kitchen window is very nearly the height and width of the back wall-an extension of a former sun porch, the result of an inspired renovation. Although the yard is bordered by neighbors’ lots on three sides, it does not seem enclosed. Rather, it resembles a clearing in the woods. This morning, a swirling, feathered mass of white-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows (“See the black-and-white head?”) and chimney sparrows, even a female purple finch, compete with me for his attention. He’s not being impolite. I’m here to observe him in his habitat.
When it comes to bird watching, “Joey’s a pro,” Enright told me. “It galvanizes his interests.”
I ask Slinger why he became a birder, but his answer is broken off when something catches his eye. “On the white table there,” he points, “is the fox sparrow. Now, if he comes up-there’s a central spot on his chest-you’ll see, while these other birds are brown, he’s almost red-rusty red, and a very gentle grey. He’s really beautiful. He’s an exciting creature to have show up.” Slinger, too, is an exciting creature, but not because of his plumage-today, a long-sleeved purple shirt and khaki trousers with red suspenders-but because of his call. Some say it’s the call of the loon and they may be right, if for the wrong reason. If you listen closely, it stays with you, with a warmth and with a chill.
When Slinger started his column at the Star, his editors expected him to return to the path of political gossip which he had trod with great success at the Sun. The reborn columnist had other ideas.
“Gossip is hard work. It’s drudgery.”
“Yes. It’s reporting. Absolutely.” There is a tone of mock horror in his voice. He resolved to go for walks around the city’s many neighborhoods and river valleys. Early mornings he’d explore Toronto and go home to paint word pictures of what he’d seen. Once he got over the thrill of writing about “yellow flowers and blue flowers,” he decided he needed a little remedial education or he would run out of material. His studies included a correspondence course in ornithology from Cornell University. “I got fairly serious for a time, but mainly it was to have something to write about.”
He tells of E.B. White, who wrote for The New Yorker. One day White surprised his friends and moved to Maine to a farm he’d bought on the edge of the ocean. There he stayed for the next 50 years with a few geese and a few sheep and a few pigs. “I believe he did that because what he wrote about was himself and his own experiences. I’ve
always believed that he bought the farm to give himself something to do that he could write about himself doing,” rather than staying cooped up in an office in New York.
“One of the things I do in writing about Toronto is go and see things that have been taken for granted and write about them as if they are, in fact, novelties and unique rather more wonderful than they actually are.”
Those columns are gentle and pastoral, and often reveal some portent drawn from swirling leaves or a patch of wild raspberries or a hole in the ground or a hidden, hanging swing or 1,000 similar things. In one column, he described himself as a “searcher after rhythms and patterns, trying to discern shapes in terrain where none exist except in the imagination.”
A morning in Serena Gundy Park produced these lines:
“If there is a prettier name for a park anywhere, I have yet to hear it. And if you know what’s good for you, you will go out there and bob up and down on the swooping suspension footbridge that carries you into the park across the Don River. If you are still in a foul humour after bobbing up and down, then throw yourself off the bridge and dash your brains out on the rocks below; you are beyond help, anyway
“At the end of a woody cove, a shallow ravine-more like a gully pitches down through the trees. It is filled with snow and well marked with tracks of toboggans, children’s sleighs, the wobbly downhill courses and herringbone up hills of cross-country skiers. But the tracks, while clear, are no longer sharp. They are softened, the way memories-at least pleasurable memories-are softened as we get farther from the original experience. And they last much longer than the unpleasurable memories that melt rapidly out of mind around them.”
Another thing that appealed to Slinger when he was offered the column was the chance to fool with comic forms, “which is great exercise, like practicing the piano.” Practicing is not something that very many newspaper people do very often and that pains him.
“It’s an odd business where most of the people in it are not very good at it because they don’t work at it.” There are good reporters and gifted writers, he says, but few of those care much about improving the quality of their work. “[Editors] don’t give a shit. Just read the Star and you’ll see they’re not terribly interested in it being well-written. It’s
the one thing I care about. That, as a task, engaged my interest and it still does.”
The wheels of his creation seldom show. Equally, it’s sometimes difficult to find the humor, to see the joke. Can he be serious? Definitely. Always. Never more so than when he’s being funny.
The fictitious Aurora Nude Festival, which many people took for fact, was born when Slinger decided the town’s Latin motto, SOL MEUS TESTIS, meant “Where the sun never shines.” A better translation might be “The sun is my witness,” but that would be quibbling. The mayor” not amused.
One of the columns for which won the National Newspaper Award demanded public floggings, legalized prostitution, death squads a martial law, so that visiting delegation of the International Monetary Fund might feel at home in Toronto. The premier of Ontario had extend drinking hours in deference to guests.
Wrote Slinger: “I’m positive some of the delegates were homes because none of us natives were invited at three a.m. by masked m and taken outside and summar machine-gunned or, failing that, least taken into the basement
police headquarters to have electrodes affixed to our genitals. Polite society isn’t polite society in a lot countries our visitors hailed from unless there are screams in the back ground.
“Me, I broke all my fingers. It w my way of saying ‘Welcome!'” On a gentler note, the beauty “Bag Lady Baseball” is that his description of these sad, lonely ladies whose instincts make them incapable of playing the game, presses 0 eyes closer to the truth than a conventional newspaper story might.
the end, the bewildered bag ladies are huddled for protection in del centre field, cowering under a blizzard of baseballs hit by Pete Rose. is a tall tale that touches both t] heart and the imagination.
John Edward Slinger, Jr. was born in Guelph, Ontario, in 1943 and startc his career at Guelph’s Daily Mercury in 1965. He had dropped out of t third year at Queen’s University
Kingston just before Christmas 196 He says he picked journalism as career while on the train back
Guelph. “I had to have something tell my father about what I w going to do.”
He first applied for a reporting job at the Kitchener- Waterloo Record but was “laughed out of town” f, his inexperience. Then “somebody died” at the Mercury and a job opened up for the hometown boy. Two years later, he decided to try
school again. On the basis of his time at the Mercury, he was accepted into the second year of the journalism program at Carleton University. While at Carleton, he worked part-time for The Canadian Press in Ottawa. Canada’s centennial made for a lot of work in the summer of 1967, but Carleton wouldn’t take him back in the fall. “I told CP they were stuck with me and, in their gratitude, they sent me to Winnipeg. It was cruel and unusual punishment.” That winter was marked by long, frigid walks up Portage Avenue late at night when he couldn’t afford a taxi. Rescue came with an invitation to Vancouver Island to join the Victoria Times, now the Victoria Times-Colonist. At the Times, he quickly rose to city editor, a rank which he describes as a “misinterpretation of prodigiousness-this was the backwater of journalism.” In 1970, he made the big time when he was hired by The Globe and Mail.
Ask about his reporting days and he’ll tell you he was a terrible reporter. “I never knew what questions to ask.”
Not that this stopped him from doing his job. “I always figured that if you get 10 facts, I’ll only get two, but I’ll out write you,” says Slinger. “I’ve never been too good at getting facts, but I haven’t ever been too worried about not being able to do it. I’ll write something that’s enormously readable no matter what.” Rather than gathering information, “I’ve very much gone the writing route. It might be out of sheer laziness, but I like to think it’s because I’m such a sensitive person.”
The dream of many a reporter would be to wear Joey Slinger’s geeking shoes and walk the dog, not before work, not after work, but absolutely any time at all-within reason. There is always work to be done.
The down side, the hard part, is conceiving and competently executing four columns a week. It’s far from easy. The job is basically self-assigning. “It’s not physically demanding work,” he says, “but it’s not something that many would either care to do or would do very well.” “Do you have the best job in Canadian journalism?” “No, but it’s the only one I care to do. And I do it because I have no particular skills in any other area.” Martin O’Malley tells Slinger he should write books or a once a-month column in a magazine. Michael Enright says Slinger should try to write for American magazines and gain a wider, more profitable audience. But Slinger stays at the Star, “because they let me do whatever I want to do.” For that he receives the five-year union rate of just over $1,100 a week-actually a princely income for a Canadian writer-but Slinger has other ambitions and they don’t include journalism.
“If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t say, ‘What? And lose my vocation?'” He pauses, eyes wide, relishing the thought with his wild, toothy grin. “I’d be out of here in a flash.”
He’s written at least one novel, unpublished-“It’s out of circulation now”-and for two years has been writing TV scripts with Bill Cameron, co-host of The journal on CBC television. When I comment on the mediocrity of Canadian sitcoms, those produced by Canadians who stayed in Canada, Slinger replies, “It’s not hard to write awful stuff, as we’re discovering.”
What would be the market for a Slinger syndicated column in Canada? Actually, the column is already syndicated by the Star. “Here, I’ll show you the cheque for September.” The figure is an appalling $2.26.
Why so little money? So few papers?
“I think because it’s badly sold. I’m sure the syndication department thinks it’s because nobody gives a shit or [the column] is shit.” He smiles, innocently. “I’m sure they would have a different view than mine.”
The title of Slinger’s first collection of columns, No Axe Too Small to Grind, aptly describes the columnist’s raison d’etre: to make big issues out of small ones. At more than one major Canadian newspaper, where managing editors and former legislative bureau chiefs tap out derivative fluff styled on the Star’s Gary Lautens or popular American columnist Dave Barry, Slinger’s appearance could only make the locals look ridiculousand that’s not funny.
Although he exhorts his friend to try other things, Michael Enright notes that the pursuit of the big book or the big movie should not be the gauge of Slinger’s career. “I don’t think he’s limited by anything other than the energy he wants to devote A lot of great writers have been great in just writing columns and essays.”
For Joey Slinger, writing a newspaper column is just another job and he’s stuck with it. A tough life. He sets his own hours. Chooses his own stories. Comes and goes as he pleases. He’s seldom seen in the newsroom. He writes at home. He writes what he likes. Some days he writes about what makes him mad. Some days he just dreams and takes his readers with him. Fortunately for Slinger, and his readers, he’s uncommonly suited to the task.
It’s the columnist’s unique degree of freedom, he says, that allows the columnist to draw attention to things that an ordinary journalist, a reporter, might not be able to.
“I occasionally write about my dog, but I’m imagining it has some sort of more universal significance than the great fascination we share in my household with my dog. It’s an excuse to tell another story-an excuse to preach”.